Update: This article mentions Louis C.K. as someone we should “act like.” These ideas were based on his work ethic and the article was written prior to the news of his inappropriate, degrading, predatory, power-hungry behavior toward women. I have chosen to leave the contents here to be honest as to my thinking at the time they were written. The principles behind the example remain. However, under no circumstances should anyone ever act like Louis C.K.

The average millennial stays in her job for 18 months. She moves on to something better, and looks for work that pays well and taps into her desire to make the world a better place. Or, she finds the freedom of freelancing — the joys of being her own boss, setting her own schedule, and turning down jobs that don’t fulfill her inner desires. Gone are the days of working at the same job for 30 years before you retire with a gold Timex and a pension.

This is especially true in the creative space. More and more writers, videographers, and graphic designers are on the hunt for new projects to fill holes in their schedules.

With new attitudes towards work and so many people looking for work, how can creatives stand out?

1. Network Like Picasso

During his lifetime, Picasso produced over 13,000 paintings and about 300 sculptures. Not only was he the most prolific artist ever, but everyone loved Picasso. His charisma drew people to him and his work.

Van Gogh, on the other hand, produced about 900 paintings during his lifetime. Even though his art was brilliant, he repelled people. (Kind of hard to make friends when you cut your ear off.) Van Gogh struggled to sell his art and maintain connections, even those closest to him.

In his book Iconoclast, neuroscientist Gregory Berns notes the differences between the two artists: “Picasso offers pointed lessons on how to shrink the world. Increase the world’s familiarity with you through productivity and exposure.” It turns out, the brain likes familiarity. Studies show that people are more likely to do business with individuals with whom they are already familiar. Because Picasso intentionally increased his exposure and was so prolific in his work, the world’s familiarity with him increased exponentially.

How can you stay in front of people? What networking events can you attend? What social media tools can you use to help? And, if you aren’t a natural connector or networker, then which of your friends are? Can they become advocates for your work?

2. Act Like Louis C.K.

In a wonderful essay about his experience with New York City, Louis C.K. recalls starting off in his career and the amount of effort it took. “At first, it was really a struggle here [in NYC],” says Louis, “I wasn’t making any money at the beginning. I used to hop the turnstile on my first subway ride of the night to get down to the Village, do the Comedy Cellar, get paid $8 and use that to get to The Improv in a cab. If you’re lucky, you’re breaking even at that point, and then you try to figure out transportation and spots. The last set would usually be Comic Strip at two in the morning — you get $10, maybe, and you want to keep it so you walk across Central Park to get home. You’re happy if you did that every night.”

Whether he knew it or not (although I suspect he did), Louis C.K. acted like a pro. He showed up, worked, edited, and then came back again the next night. In a time when anyone with a Mac can call himself a “creative,” acting like a pro will help you stand out in a crowded market.

This means doing some really basic things like formalizing your quoting system, having a real agreement (or contract or project map) that clients sign off on, responding to messages in a timely fashion, generating invoices in something other than a Google Doc, being on time, and keeping your word.

As a young creative starting out 14 years ago, this took me awhile to figure out. I thought that if I did good work, people would hire me. Sure, that’s part of it. But guess what? A lot of creatives do good work and a lot of them are better than me. So, I needed to stand out in other ways. Acting like a pro was one way to stand out. Not only do people tend to hire those they know, they hire those in whom they are confident.

What can you do to improve your professionalism? Are there ways that “just showing up” might help you? Are there certain processes and procedures that you can adapt to stand out from other freelancers? If you’re looking for full-time work, how can you button up your social media feeds so that when an employer checks you out online, she has a positive response?

3. Think Like Penn and Teller

My kids are into magic, so I have been watching a lot of Penn and Teller lately. In an interview with Smithsonian magazine, Teller, the one who doesn’t talk, doles out a “secret” to magic: “Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth.” He explains the setup for a trick they performed on Letterman, pulling 500 live cockroaches from a top hat. This took weeks of preparation. “More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably,” Teller says, “but not to magicians.”

The same goes with finding work. Go ahead and do something crazy, maybe a little less crazy than releasing 500 live cockroaches at your interview, but crazy nonetheless. During an interview at FiveStone, someone once brought in a candy bar with a custom wrapper designed just for us. Airbnb’s Director of Marketing applied for the job by designing a comic book instead of a resume. He landed the job in just a few days.

Simon Sinek points out that “great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them.”

What level of motivation are you communicating during calls and interviews? Can you do something creative to stand out? Is the job you want worth putting in a little extra effort, even if you don’t get the work?

4. Practice Like Jiro (and his apprentice)

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the documentary about the then 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, Jiro’s young apprentice sets out to make the restaurant’s egg sushi.

At first, all of Jiro’s apprentices start out by holding a hot towel for an extended period of time. Once they can handle the towel, the apprentice is allowed to handle the fish and is taught to cut it properly. After 10 years, the apprentice is finally allowed to cook eggs. This may seem extreme, and in many ways it is, but Jiro strives for perfection.

So, the young apprentice decides he might be good at making the egg sushi. For three months, he comes to work every day and makes the egg sushi. And, every day for three months, Jiro throws it out — it’s not good enough to serve. The apprentice tries and tries again, over 300 times, before Jiro uses what he made.

Like the apprentice, we all face periods of “not getting it right” and we doubt if we’ll ever find work. But, we persist and we keep at it. We try to get better at our craft and we understand that we always have something new to learn.

What’s something new that you learned today? What do you want to learn? How can you encourage others in their craft?

The Common Thread

Picasso, Louis C.K., Penn and Teller, and Jiro’s apprentice all have this in common: they worked hard and stayed at it.

Chin up, work is around the corner.

Thanks to the FiveStone team for helping out: Kashmiri Schmookler for taking a talk I gave and turning it into this article and Patricio Juarez for cranking out the the illustration.

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